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Milwaukee Public Schools Outperform Voucher Schools in Program, Report Says

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A new report from the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee found that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which enrolls about 25,000 students in private schools through the state's voucher program, has similar demographics and poverty levels as Milwaukee Public Schools, but students there perform slightly worse on standardized tests in math and reading.

The nonpartisan government watchdog group conducted a census of MPCP from October through December 2012 to determine its findings. Of the 113 schools in the program, three did not provide information to the survey.

This is the second year that MPCP has been required to report performance data on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, the state's standardized test. Fifty-seven percent of voucher school students scored proficient or higher in reading, compared to 60 percent of Milwaukee Public School students who reached proficiency in reading. Forty-one percent of the students in voucher schools reached proficiency in math on the test, while 50 percent of their Milwaukee Public School counterparts reached proficiency. Students in both MPCP and Milwaukee Public Schools performed far lower than students in the state overall, who reached 82 percent proficiency or higher in reading and 78 percent proficiency or higher in math. The report did not account for differences in demographics in the different populations.

The report notes that not all students in MPCP qualify for the exams, which are given in grades 3-8 and 10. "Just under half of voucher users have been enrolled in grades where there is no testing requirement," the report found. Students in MPCP can also opt out of taking the exams, and in some cases, the scores of students in MPCP may be withheld because the school is so small that releasing the data could compromise student privacy, the report also noted. The scores to determine proficiency in the MPCP schools refer specifically to the students in the voucher program in those schools, not the overall population of students, which would include private school students not participating in the voucher program.

The report found that students using vouchers for Catholic and Lutheran schools scored higher on the Wisconsin state exams than other Christian or non-religious schools in MPCP.

MPCP educates students for less money than Milwaukee Public Schools, the report found. Students using vouchers receive $6,442 in state funding per pupil, which is the same amount of state aid that students in Milwaukee Public Schools receive. However, overall, MPCP spends $7,670 per student, while Milwaukee Public Schools spends an average of $9,812 per student, the report found. The difference in funding could be because of MPCP's avoidance of "legacy costs" for retiree pensions and health care, the report said, as well as a lack of instructional resources such as art, music, PE, libraries, or technology specialists. Thirty-nine out of the 113 schools in MPCP reported having no such services available for their students.

The report also pointed out that while the number of students using vouchers has increased by 88 percent over the past 10 years, the amount of funding tied to the voucher has only increased 10 percent, which has not kept up with inflation.

According to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, school choice advocate Jim Bender, who leads the group School Choice Wisconsin, took issue with the report, saying that the per-pupil cost of educating students in Milwaukee Public Schools was higher than the amounts reflected in the report. He also said the percentage of students in poverty listed for the MPCP demographics was misleading because it includes private-pay students not participating in the voucher program.

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